Friday, March 1, 2024

Community close up: The Triad, center of attention


Toyota Motor Corp. chose the Triad for its $1.3 billion electric-vehicle battery factory.
The move shines a light on the greater Carolina Core’s opportunities, connections, workforce and quality of life.

Click on the image above to see entire section.

The Triad is a 12-county patch in North Carolina’s middle, where highways, interstates, rails and flight paths crisscross. It was the center of attention late last year, when Toyota Motor Corp. announced it was building a $1.29 billion factory at the Greensboro-Randolph Megasite. It will bring 1,750 jobs, whose annual payroll is projected at $100 million, and produce batteries for electric vehicles starting in 2025.

Toyota expects electric vehicles to make up 40% of its new vehicle sales by 2025, growing to 70% by 2030. “They were convinced that we could get them up and running in the shortest amount of time,” says Greensboro Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Brent Christensen. “Time is money.”

Grading on the nearly 1,900-acre site began in January. “It’s been kind of a whirlwind,” says Randolph County Economic Development Corp. President Kevin Franklin. “[Toyota] moved very quickly. Fortunately, the company was already familiar with our region from their search several years ago [when it opted for a production site in Alabama], so it was more them picking up where they left off and filling them in on what had been done in the meantime.”

Getting Toyota reacquainted and committed was a team effort. “There were no egos, political parties, boundaries — nothing got in the way,” Christensen says. “We had a team of folks who made sure everything would be successful. This whole project has been a collaboration. People across the country can look and say, that’s how you get a project done. Kevin (Franklin) and I got a lot of pats on the back on announcement day, but that’s when the real work starts. You don’t announce and walk away. You have to make sure they get what they want, and that’s what’s on our plate now.”

Greensboro-Randolph Megasite
Greensboro-Randolph Megasite


The Triad’s counties are Surry, Stokes, Rockingham and Caswell along the Virginia line, and Forsyth and Guilford at the center, surrounded by Yadkin, Davie, Davidson, Randolph, Montgomery and Alamance. About three years ago, local economic booster Piedmont Triad Partnership made it the foundation of Carolina Core, where low tax rates, 2 million workers and 7,200 acres of certified land are attracting businesses, small and large. Threaded together by a 120-mile stretch of U.S. 421 from Dunn to Yadkinville, it adds five counties — Chatham, Cumberland, Harnett, Lee and Moore. It’s North Carolina’s third economic engine, joining the Raleigh-Durham and Charlotte regions.

Carolina Core is more than a new name and geographic reorganization. “When the Carolina Core initiative was announced in August 2018, the Piedmont Triad Partnership proclaimed that one of the measures of our success would be to create 50,000 jobs in the Carolina Core in 20 years,” Piedmont Triad Partnership President Mike Fox says. “Since that declaration just short of three years ago, companies’ confidence in our region, along with the work of our economic developers and allies, has led to more than 22,600 announced jobs in the Carolina Core as of Dec. 21, 2021. We’ve attained more than 45% of the goal in just 15% of the time, so clearly the Carolina Core is well on its way to impressively surpass that 50,000-job goal.”

Toyota chose its site because of the availability of renewable energy — North Carolina was fourth in the nation for solar generation in 2020, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration — and support from local governments, utilities, partners and others, according to a company statement. Toyota North America Chief Administrative Officer Chris Reynolds added five more reasons: highways and railways, airports and seaports access, being consistently chosen as a top state for doing business, a world-renowned education system, and its outstanding and diverse workforce.

Toyota leads a series of recent investments in Carolina Core. Children’s clothing manufacturer LT Apparel Group, for example, announced a $57 million investment at Greensboro’s Reedy Fork Corporate Park in mid-December. It includes a $200,000 One NC grant and $500,000 grant from the city. The company says it will create 116 jobs. Nature’s Value will create 183 jobs and invest $19 million at its new headquarters and vitamin factory in Winston-Salem. Commercial equipment provider Altec is expanding near Mount Airy, investing $9 million and creating 100 jobs. And in September, flooring manufacturer Mohawk Industries announced it’s investing $87 million in an expansion that will create 87 jobs in Davidson County over the next three years.

Fox says Toyota’s choice is an endorsement of Carolina Core. “Having a brand like Toyota nearby is sure to raise the visibility of both the Chatham-Siler City Advanced Manufacturing Site and Triangle Innovation Point in neighboring Chatham County,” he says. The 1,800-acre Chatham-Siler City site, for example, is zoned heavy industrial, only 35 miles from Research Triangle Park and has rail access and U.S. 64 frontage. And 2,150-acre Triangle Innovation Point, billed as a life sciences and advanced manufacturing park with sites available from 10 to 1,000 acres, is 30 minutes from Raleigh-Durham International Airport.
Economic developers have pushed thousands of vacant and shovel-ready acres onto radars of large-scale manufacturers, hoping to land the big deal. “We’ve been grading sites and making sites available for any company for three or four years, because we don’t know where [in the country] any project might go until we start negotiating with them,” says Kevin Baker, executive director of the Piedmont Triad Airport Authority.

Whitaker Park is between downtown Winston-Salem and Wake Forest University. RJ Reynolds Tobacco Co. built a cigarette manufacturing plant — the world’s largest at one time — there in 1961 and closed it in 2010, relocating its 580 employees to the company’s plant in Tobaccoville, which is on the line between Forsyth and Stokes counties. Since 2017, Whitaker Park has been reinvented, welcoming several companies and drafting plans to complete residential and retail development and adding a hotel. Piedmont Triad Partnership calls it an “economic driver.”

Whitaker Park Development Authority President and CEO Bob Leak saw his plans for the property stall in early 2020 as the COVID-19 pandemic arrived in full force. Now its 120 acres and 12 buildings are nearly full, transformed into a business park that reflects his original forecast for a manufacturing, retail and residential center. “It’s like a megasite on a smaller scale,” he says. “It’s a place that is creating jobs in the community, and that ripples through the whole region. We’re taking an old manufacturing campus and bringing it back and making it vibrant.”

RJ Reynolds still has a presence in the heart of Whitaker Park, where it runs a small factory that’s surrounded by new development. Cook Medical, for example, opened an 850,000-square-foot factory in the park, where it makes medical devices, in January 2019. Leak says every piece of property at Whitaker is sold or under contract. “We’ve gone from 12 buildings available to nothing,” he says. “We still have a couple months of due diligence, and we have contracts to do spec buildings and hope somebody will rent them. The lab building was the last building, and it was put under contract [in late December] to lease wet lab space, anything a company might want to do with testing. So, it’s been a pretty good year and a half.”

Leak says the next phase is retail and a mid-rise hotel. Whitaker Park Lofts apartments could be available as soon as later this year. When the entire park project is complete,
WPDA will focus on a community opportunity development fund, tentatively called the Whitaker Park Economic Development Fund, which will offer economic development grants. “The fund and grants will be decided [this year],” he says. “For the fund itself, we don’t know the total value yet. It will be several million, but we don’t know.”

Triad map i685
Designating part of Highway U.S. 421 as a future interstate will further spur economic
growth and make the region even more competitive on a global stage.


Toyota’s site abuts 1.5 miles of U.S. 421 and 1 mile along the Norfolk Southern Railway line on the north side of the park. N.C. Department of Transportation will prepare a study and application for federal review this year, and construction will begin on two interstate-quality interchanges to provide access to Toyota’s site from U.S. 421 soon. “One of our big industries is logistics, and there’s been a feeding frenzy on industrial property and new spec buildings erected in anticipation of what is to come in 2022 and beyond as industries across the country look to bring their supply chains closer to home,” says Greensboro Chamber’s Christensen. The move is partially in response to the pandemic, which has made sourcing raw materials and moving goods to market difficult.

The $1 trillion federal infrastructure bill, which President Biden signed in November, brings hopes of accelerating U.S. 421’s journey toward becoming Interstate 685, though money has yet to be designated. “Connecting two of North Carolina’s most active interstate corridors — I-85 and I-95 — will mean that Future 685 can offer alternative and redundant access for goods and people moving through the center of our state in the event of storms and weather disruptions,” says Piedmont Triad Partnership’s Fox. “Oftentimes, companies looking to locate a new project want to be close to an interstate highway and may rule out a site that is not within a certain distance of the interstate. Designating the U.S. 421 corridor not only makes the Chatham County megasites more desirable in many consultants’ eyes but also brings interstate access to industrial sites in Lee, Harnett and Randolph counties.”

Interstate 685 would move more than goods. It would connect people to jobs, too. “It’s kind of obvious that if we have an interstate-level road that runs east and west, it does nothing but help us to access employees who would want to work at the airport,” Baker says. “Highway 421 is good, but it has its downfalls, like the occasional traffic signal, and having a full interstate would certainly be beneficial. There are a lot of growing communities [southeast of PTI], and especially given the news of the Greensboro-Randolph site, a whole lot of people are going to need a place to live. They are going to need housing, and they will need a place to fly.”

The interstate designation has a military component, too. U.S. 421 is a few miles from Fort Bragg, the U.S. Army’s largest installation by population and home to the famed 82nd Airborne Division and Special Operations Command. “It would be a huge advantage from a military readiness perspective as well as continuity of services and so forth,” says Kevin Lacy, a N.C. Department of Transportation traffic engineer.


Greensboro Chamber’s Christensen believes Toyota considered more than numbers. “I think one of the reasons Toyota is coming to the Greensboro-Randolph site is that they saw the incredible quality of life, which we’re always working to improve,” he says. “On one of their visits to the city, we took them to the North Carolina Zoo [in Randolph County], to the Steven Tanger Center for the Performing Arts [in Greensboro], and they were interested in housing options.”

Leak agrees. “One of the reasons these companies are picking the Triad is that we are family friendly,” he says. “We’re close to the mountains and the beaches. We have good restaurants, and obviously you want all the amenities in one place. So, we market that. That’s part of the pitch.” Educational and workforce development opportunities are highlighted, too.

The Triad is home to 21 colleges and universities, which enrolled nearly 100,000 students in 2017, according to the Piedmont Triad Regional Council. Their offerings are varied, but many are part of workforce development initiatives. That’s especially true at the region’s community colleges, which can customize training to individual needs of businesses. They support many industries, including advanced manufacturing, aviation and aerospace, automotive, biomedical and life sciences, technology, entrepreneurship, and logistics.
Jamestown-based Guilford Technical Community College offers more than 70 workforce training programs, including several in medical fields. It has three in aviation manufacturing, including a structures assembly program. It also offers students routes
for transferring to universities, where they can apply credits earned toward completing a four-year degree.

Piedmont Triad International Airport
Piedmont Triad International Airport’s state-of-the-art facilities and available workforce make PTI a catalyst for commercial and industrial development.

A portion of community college students are hired by the more than 200 aviation and aerospace companies that have landed in the region, particularly at PTI and in Greensboro, High Point and Winston-Salem. “Aviation and aerospace are key growth sectors for our region,” Fox says. The Carolina Core’s aerospace workforce numbered 15,600 employees in 2019, up 40% from 2014.

Guilford Technical Community College’s Aviation Campus in Greensboro is one of the Southeast’s best equipped maintenance training facilities. Forsyth Technical Community College’s $16 million Mazie S. Woodruff Aviation Technology Lab opened at Smith Reynolds Airport in Winston-Salem last fall. It has a 15,356-square-foot hanger that can house up to eight aircraft. Students learn to work with sheet metal and composites, electronics, paint, and piston and turbine engines in its classrooms and labs.

“Talent in the Carolina Core has a strong work ethic,” says Michimasa Fujino, president and CEO of Honda Aircraft Co., which established its Greensboro headquarters in 2006
and employs 1,500 in research and development, manufacturing and customer service.


Passengers flying from Piedmont Triad International Airport can reach more than 150 destinations with a single stop and 15 destinations, including Chicago, New York and Washington, D.C., directly. But many were grounded by the COVID-19 pandemic, which hit the airport’s daily operations hard. “April 18, 2020, was our low-water day,” says Baker, its executive director. “It was a Saturday, and on a normal Saturday in April, we would have 3,500 passengers getting on planes. That day we had 75. We were down 97.7%. And that was pretty much the whole industry — no parking, nobody buying drinks or food in the terminal, and no planes flying in. They pay us to land here … and all that revenue dried up.”

As the pandemic appears to be waning, passengers have returned. Baker says PTI is back to about 85% of its 2019 numbers. “If we don’t have trouble with this new variant, we’ll be fully back,” he says. But passenger service is only a portion of what happens at PTI. “I think our airport is different from most in that we’re very focused on the economic development segment and having good jobs to employ people in our region and right here at our airport,” he says. “To be competitive in that world, we’ve taken a lot of steps to proactively make sure people are available.”

PTI already is home to several businesses, including HondaJet and FedEx. And there’s room for more at its 1,000-acre Aerospace Megasite, which is accessible to aircraft by a taxiway bridge that was built over Interstate 73. “Obviously [megasite tenants] have to be in the aerospace world, and we welcome all sorts of aerospace users,” Baker says. “It could be [original equipment manufacturers], which would be a first target then [maintenance and repair operations], and beyond that it could be cargo companies and airlines, if they need a headquarters. There could be large tenants, like fuselage manufacturers … something like that.”

Baker believes preparation will pay off. “If someone showed up and said, hey, we need 1,000 acres, we don’t have to say go away and come back,” he says. “We are ready right now. So that makes us very attractive. Plus, we’re in a really good geographic position in the center of the state, the center of the East Coast, the roadway system is second-to-none, and we have a low cost of living and doing business and a temperate climate. It’s a great place to raise a family with good schools. Put that all together, and you have a place that’s attractive and unique for aerospace companies to exist.”

News outlets recently published reports that at least one aviation company has shown interest in PTI’s megasite. Denver-based Boom Supersonic is said to be eyeing it for a factory, where it would build its Overture jet, a 205-foot-long aircraft that can carry 65 passengers, cruise at twice the altitude of most commercial flights — 60,000 feet — and fly at Mach 1.7, 1,304 miles per hour. It resembles a slim rocket, according to the company’s website. Production is expected to start this year and its first flight in 2029. The company says that United Airlines, which has between 15 and 20 daily departures from Charlotte-Douglass International, North Carolina’s largest airport, is the first airline to agree to purchase the aircraft.

Baker couldn’t comment on the possibility of a Boom deal in early January, citing the airport authority’s stance of not discussing ongoing economic development projects. But PTI’s official statement made it clear that it, or any aviation company, would have local economic developers’ full attention. “We can say that for many decades, PTI has been home to important aerospace employers like Honda, FedEx, HAECO and Cessna,” the statement reads. “Over the last 10 years, the Authority has focused on preparing nearly 1,000 acres to be ready for continued growth in the aerospace industry.” ■

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